Functional Training Institute

Exploring Mindfulness In The Fitness Space

By Tarek Michael Chouja, Director of FTI

Mindfulness means, ‘Being present in the moment’

One of the key proponents in this field is Dr Richard Davidson from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The Centre for Healthy Minds has identified 4 key areas that a person must cultivate to become more mindful in their daily lives. They are

  1. Attention
  2. Focus
  3. Resilience
  4. Outlook & generosity

They are summarised in the following short video: movement/well-being-tips-from-neuroscience

The power of this exists in the universality and application across all aspects of life: be they personal or professional in nature

One particular area of fascination for me has been exploring mindfulness within the fitness space.

The link between increased participation in fitness sessions due to a building of trust based on mindfulness is as important today as it ever was years gone by. We can look at mindfulness in the fitness space twofold:

  1. How the exerciser becomes intrinsically motivated to move and exercise. Mindfulness goes beyond this and says, ‘Be present when you are exercising’. For out of this focus flows enjoyment; results and a

For a wonderful anecdotal perspective, I recommend watching and listening carefully to the Australian philosopher Damon Young’s talk on how exercising can become an important fabric in one’s life:

  1. How the trainer or coach is involved with his/her client; group or team they are training or This is the primary focus of this article although it relates to number 1; my main thesis in this article is directed to enhancing the personalised approach to what I call the ‘connection building’ of trainer and client; coach and athlete/team. Trainers and coaches must not only build trust but to get the best out of their clients; groups; athletes or teams by being more present and involved. Where the passion fizzles so the results flounder and performance goes down!

Now there was a story told to me of a trainer who shall remain unnamed who was conducting a PT session. Soon into the session one of the trainer’s friends rocked up and interrupted the session. Your thinking at this point I bet the trainer tells him to ‘get lost’. Well I can tell you according to the eyewitness who was observing this unfold, that did not happen. What  actually occurred is the trainer abruptly stopped the session to follow his friend and began measuring his body in utter fascination. This occurred for 10 minutes in which time the client did things on his own. That the client decided to take it upon himself to work out instead of walking out is remarkable in and of itself.

What happened between that trainer and client is uncertain and not important to the main point of the story.

The larger question is what we extract from this story to help us gather a platform to establish mindfulness in the fitness space.

Two themes come to mind here: one is to do with ‘Culture’ and the other about ‘Coaching’.

The first undertaking of any individual or corporation is establishing your vision, mission and values which acts as the anchor point of your culture. This will provide you with direction and purpose. Now let us take a look at how we can foster and make culture and coaching a personal and organisational habit

Key theme #1 Building Connections (fostering an empowering culture)

Making your ‘holy’ space a place of fun and belonging where clients or your group can train, laugh and connect. There is relationship building going on that is organic, mutual and ultimately positive in nature. The following image defines what connection building is in relation to the trainer/coach and her client or group:

Coach to Client

The essence of building trust comes about when there is an open environment that is personalised in nature. So, coach to client connection is utterly important to build-up as it were enough trust that you become the trusted authority and not some authoritarian who wields his power over clients. It involves conscious and what Stephen Covey calls ‘empathic listening’ to truly become empowering and effective enough.

We first need to connect with the client even before understanding their training needs. One on one coaching time away from the sweat of working out is essential to ultimately gauge the overall progress of the client. This need not always be a scheduled appointment but a catch up for lunch or coffee is a more relaxed and open way of building more of that trust and connection with your client.

Coach to Group/Team

Once you can connect with one client it makes it easier to then establish further connections with the entire group you are training. Take for example group classes. Typically, we can  have small groups and larger groups. The bigger the group the less personalised right! Well that may be true, however, your ability to connect with the group – no matter its size – is what truly matters.

I am not for a second saying be a motivational speaker or worse still someone you are not. Connecting with a larger group is about being clear with instructions, expectations and getting the other group members to connect with one another which leads us to the next level of connection.

Client to Client (in group sessions) or athlete to athlete (in team sports)

Cultivating an open environment where everyone is welcomed and introduced to each other produces magic. Not the kind where a rabbit is pulled out of the hat, I mean the real kind of magic that brings people of a common purpose together. That purpose is exercise that is fun, challenging, dynamic and interactive.

If nurtured correctly, clients forge friendships and help each other along their common journey of training and being healthier. The key is to allow clients to have ‘chill time’ in between exercise routines and to create scenarios aka games where they are laughing and having loads of fun. This feeds into our next theme…

Key theme #2 Increasing Positivity (Fun and engaging methods)

Fun games and the power of play

Treating exercise as fun is a key way to increase levels of positivity with your client or group. You will notice that when you participate in exercise that includes elements of fun and treats it as play, that your levels of focus and engagement increases. It is a way to build trust and build on the connection we previously discussed. Whether you are a trainer or coach that trains older clients; kids; or ‘serious adults’ (oh and these are the best types to introduce games to), Fun and play is one of the best ways to increase compliance where your client and group want to come to training.

One of the proponents of studying play in all spheres of life including how animals play and what we can learn from them is Dr Stuart Brown. Below is a talk he gave that covers his research and understanding from a scientific to application perspective of the power of play.

Other proponents of the work of Stuart Brown have taken this in the context of fitness and educating trainers, coaches and clients on the powerful effects of fun games in fitness sessions. PTA Global is an organisation that has integrated this successfully with the likes of Ian O’Dwyer being a wonderful advocate of including games and play into his sessions with clients ranging from children to the elderly. Below is the PTA Global philosophy on fun games called ‘Applying the power of play

Making your sessions positive is also paramount to success for your client or group. As the saying goes: ‘You live and die by your words’. From a neutral cuing perspective, a good coach will affirm to the client or group on the progress and journey. What that means is you will personalise a positive cue like ‘great squat depth Mary’ or ‘tremendous effort on that last set team’. If we are not present, then neutral cuing becomes useless and ‘dead’ words that are not appropriately allocated to the client or group. It is all in the energy and selction of words that neutral cuing is most effective. Imagine running a session where your mind is wandering and you occasionally mutter ‘good job’; ‘nice form’ (when it is actually shit); and the one that constantly gets repeated in group sessions: ‘awesome work’. Was it really awesome!?

Key theme #3 Being Involved (changing things up)

A true Win/Win scenario is getting the balance right between Courage and Consideration as Covey puts it in the 7 habits of highly effective people. To be a highly effective trainer or coach is precisely tapping into this unique formula to ‘change things up’ and get involved in the training sessions. Conversely this works by having the client or group be involved in what they want to do once in a while.

This takes on board the conscious and empathic listening from Key theme #1 and draws on the strategies adopted in key theme #2.

Working out once in a while with your client or group.

Effective coaching isn’t just about writing a program and running the session for your client  or group. It includes on a more conscious level an awareness of the energy and motivational levels of the client or group. This is why I am a big fan of partner training and having members of a group pair up to perform programs to vary things up. This will elicit accountability on each person’s part and increase the motivation whilst performing exercise or workouts.

Another strategy I teach is for the trainer to pair up with their ‘struggling’ client in a one on one session. Here again partner exercises are a wonderful way to increase that connection and help to motivate the client. It does not need to be the whole work-out but at least a portion of it where they see that you are at once competent and ready to go that extra mile with them.

Letting your client or group decide now and  again

As trainers or coaches, we like to be in control and often feel a need to write or prepare the best programs. Studies in self-determination theory (SDT) – which is a theory of motivation – have shown that providing a balance between autonomy and control is key to exercise compliance: The adherence of a client to continual training. Ultimately, we want our client(s) to enjoy exercising and making it a way of life. This is known as intrinsically wanting to exercise and create healthy habits that spring from it.

Proponents of this like Roy Sugarman use SDT to elaborate on their own theories of a more personalised and autonomous way to include the client in a more ‘client centred’ approach to training and coaching clients.

The key take-away here is asking the group what they’d like from time to time in the sessions. You may have a few fun warm-up games up your sleeve and asking the group which one gives them choice rather than routine. If it be a personal training session, then asking your client if they would like to do one of the three programs you have prepared for them. It may just be a simple or slight variation with exercise selection and different programming. They still feel like they have a say and a degree of autonomy in the process.

In summary, exercise should be something we can all enjoy and something to experience. To experience something, we need to be present and that begins with mindfully exploring the different ways we can stay active and have fun whilst doing it.

For the trainer and coach, being mindful in the fitness space will make your endeavours more enjoyable (should the flames of passion still burn) and allow you to develop connections with your clients that will lead them to become more attune and in the habit of exercising.

Key Themes:

  • Trust = establishing connection
  • Positivity = fun activities; neutral cuing
  • Engagement = focused fitness tasks
  • Involvement = partner training
  • Culture = environment of purpose and belonging



  • Barbara Fredrickson – ‘positivity’
  • Centre for healthy minds
  • Stephen Covey – 7 habits of highly effective people
  • PTA Global – total body fun exercises
  • I’m too busy! By Nathan quinn
  • Your emotional footprint by Nathan Quinn
  • Damon Young
  • Roy sugarman ‘client centred approach’
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